Will You Please Wipe Those Smiles Off Your Faces? (updated)

Oh, come on Michelle Malkin and Patterico! Is it really such merry news that the Tribune Company’s revenues are down, that ad revenue at the Los Angeles Times and its other media properties are down?

And why are you so sure the Times‘ business woes are the result of “shoving liberalism down your readers’ throats?” Seems to me the Times’ problems mirror those of almost every other newspaper in the nation, including conservative-leaning papers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.

The triumphalism can stop right now. You look like spiteful morons.

The reality is: It will be a tragic day if and when any major metropolitan area goes from one daily newspaper to none. Looking at the scale of falling circulation, it does appear that Los Angeles and San Francisco are two of the cities most likely to experience that loss. Electorally, these are two pretty liberal areas. It’s not only right-wingers who are cancelling their subscriptions. There really aren’t enough of them to make that kind of difference.

No, the problems of the Times and other newspapers have much more to do with the niche-ing of media. Daily metro newspapers by definition aim at a mass market. Their business model was based on the expectation that, as the paper is passed around the house, each member of the household would pluck something to their liking out of the melange of printed information. Now, particular interests are satisfied elsewhere, with content that arrives quicker and goes wider and deeper into each given subject matter, whether it’s baseball, gardening, or news from Iraq.

That’s an interesting trend, exciting in some ways, worrisome in others. Let’s talk about that. This is no time for high-fives, people, especially not from you right wingers. If you think your political movement mortally wounded the Los Angeles Times, you are suffering from delusions of grandeur.

Update 1/20: In this piece, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan puts the horse before the cart, where it belongs. Conservatives didn’t kill the old media, but, as she points out, the plethora of new media helps conservatives:

Eleven years ago the Democrats lost control of Congress. Then they lost the presidency. But just as important, maybe more enduringly important, they lost their monopoly on the means of information in America. They lost control of the pipeline. Or rather there are now many pipelines, and many ways to use the information they carry. The other day, Dana Milbank, an important reporter for the Washington Post, the most important newspaper in the capital, wrote a piece deriding Judge Alito. Once such a piece would have been important. Men in the White House would have fretted over its implications. But within hours of filing, Mr. Milbank found his thinking analyzed and dismissed on the Internet; National Review Online called him a “policy bimbo.”

Is that why people are buying fewer copies of newspapers? No. But Noonan’s right; to whatever extent a “liberal media” marshalled voters and guided events, that power has been diluted.

I think that power was mostly in the eye of the beholder. Here’s what I mean. In my political career in the 80s and 90s, when an elected official announced a plan, the reaction he or she was most concerned about was that of the media. It was the job of people like me to worry about that, to use all the tricks of my trade to make sure the stories on TV and in the papers were at least tilted, say 55%, in my boss’ favor.

The staff would watch the news that night and read the paper the next morning, and based on the coverage would judge whether the initiative had been successful. A positive story equated to a positive public reception. We granted reporters that power — to represent to us what the public thought.

What that led to was people like me talking to reporters before something was announced to sound them out. “What would you think if we did this?” The reporter might take a long pull on his pipe and finally say: “Poppycock.” Knowing that would be the response, sometimes the planned initiative would be dropped or at least modified to address the reporters’ objections.

Now, as Noonan suggests, the blogosphere presents other voices to our political leaders. Not just the bloggers, but also those who leave comments. It might not be a representative sampling of public opinion, but nevertheless it’s real-time feedback. A guy like me could go to my boss and say, “The newspaper story stunk, but look what they’re saying online!” Or: “That stuffy reporter for the Times gave his blessing, but we’re getting killed by the blogs.”

Either way, the beat reporters for the bigfoot media entities have lost some of their sway over elected officials. It has nothing to do with circulation figures. The big newspapers still reach a lot of people — perhaps more than ever as their stories get hyperlinked from one end of the country to the other in a mouseclicking daisy chain. But now, they’re just one voice of many.


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